In 2010, remittances of legal and illegal immigrants to their families and communities in developing countries reached 325 billion US Dollars. That is more than three times the amount of official development assistance developing countries receive from donor countries. At the same time, institutions like the World Bank say that this immigration also brings substantial benefits to the receiving countries of international migration, e.g., the USA and many European countries. But these countries do not seem to agree, as they spend billions of Dollars every year to seal their borders from illegal immigration, which leads to the death of tens of thousands of people every year in the Sahara desert, the Mediterranean Sea, along the Mexican border or in some freight container on the Pacific. There is a substantial gap between immigration politics of rich countries and the potential of immigration. A fundamentally new approach would benefit everybody involved and could present incredible opportunities for the development of countries in South America, Africa and Asia.
The current situation looks promising: Where immigration is allowed, or immigrants find a way around restrictions, they prove to be highly productive: 215 million immigrants sent back 325 billion US Dollars to their home countries in 2010. That is an average of more than 1,500 USD per immigrant - more than the average household income in many countries. At the same time, immigrants also spend money in their receiving countries: many pay their taxes and they provide a crucial part of the workforce, without which some industries in many countries could not even exist.
It is therefore irritating that States like the USA or the European Union spend a fortune of their tax payers money to keep immigrants out. The Obama administration only recently stopped the construction of a high-tech anti-immigration fence, that, so far, produced costs of 1 billion USD on a length of 85 kilometers (and was completely useless to stop immigrants). The European organisation FRONTEX, which coordinates anti-immigration actions of the European Union, employs currently 256 officials and has a yearly budget totaling 83 million Euros. This comes on top of what individual countries pay to secure their borders. Europe and the USA also spend considerable amounts of political capital on immigration control, trying to get states like Gaddafi's Libya to control immigration for them.
Many of these isolationist policies are probably due to the fear of being swallowed up by a wave of immigration, of losing one's cultural heritage, and of an overly competitive job market. Such discourses can be witnessed in the USA (targeted at Mexican immigrants) and in almost every country of the western EU and Switzerland (here concentrated on Muslim immigrants). These discourses make it clear that completely open borders are not an option. Free migration - while in principle desirable - still has to be managed.
Currently, immigration management is based on the geographical origin of the immigrant. While immigrants from Japan or the US are welcome to the EU in principle, Africans, South Americans, and citizens of many Asian states only have a real chance if they belong to the very upper class of their countries. This model should be changed. Immigrants from economical weak states and those with an unstable political system should be preferred. Money currently spent on locking down borders should instead be allocated to facilitating official immigration. For migrants, paying for a facilitated illegal immigration to Europe costs as much as a first class ticket to the same destination by plane. Good migration policy would harness these resources instead of forcing people to finance criminal networks.
This could take the form of requiring a good knowledge of the recipient countries' language, a down-payment for a return ticket, and basic living costs for the first few months. In return, the migrant would receive the right to take up paid work. Of course, receiving states would keep the right to deport migrants if they do not take up work or if they engage in criminal activities (which some will do, but they will constitute a small minority). The danger of wage-dumping could be countered by the introduction of a minimum wage - something many countries have anyway. On top of this, a better regulation of money transfers could maximize the benefits for immigrants and their home countries.
Receiving countries would benefit hugely from increased migration. Usually highly motivated people with a good education are the first to seek success in other countries. The US would just have to look back a few hundred years into their own history to see what a potential such a workforce brings with it. Immigrants would make basic and labor intensive services cheaper, a fact which ageing societies in the western world should be eager to achieve.
For a long time, western nations have perceived immigrants from developing countries as a nuisance at best and a threat at worst. It is time to change that perception and realize the full potential of south - north migration.
*Photo by daveknapik on Flickr CC-BY-NC